Yes, it is as bad as this poster makes it look.

Revisiting Childhood Movies Part VI

Superman III

  • Director:  Richard Lester
  • Writer:  David Newman  /  Leslie Newman
  • Producer:  Ilya Salkind
  • Stars:  Christopher Reeve, Richard Pryor, Annette O’Toole, Robert Vaughn
  • Studio:  Warner Bros
  • Award Nominations:  none from groups I track
  • Length:  125 min
  • Genre:  Fantasy  (Comic Book)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Release Date:  17 June 1983
  • Box Office Gross:  $59.95 mil  (#12  –  1983)
  • Ebert Rating:  **.5
  • My Rating:  *
  • My Rank:  #87  (year – out of 91)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Notable:  none
  • First Watched:  on HBO at some point – I don’t think I saw it in the theaters
  • Number of Times Watched as a Kid:  2 or 3

When Superman Returns came out in 2006 it had some flaws.  But it got two things magnificently right above all else – the use of John Williams iconic score and the brilliant reprise of the opening titles from the first two Superman films.  Both the music and the titles give a sense of epic scale, of a magnificent fantasy story about this, the original superhero.  Director Richard Lester had been brought in late in the game on Superman II to film the scenes that were needed to complete a story after original director Richard Donner was fired.  With the third film entirely his own, Lester decided to abandon the original brilliant credits sequence used on the first two films and go instead with a slapstick opening, almost a Rube Goldberg machine of disasters in which Superman comes to the rescue, with music very different from the original John Williams score.  This sets the stage for much of the disappointment of Superman III.  It had some basic building blocks to work with in the success, both financially and artistically, of the first two films, and it wasted all of it.

And the amazing thing is, even though this might be the most appalling artistic choice in the film, I didn’t remember it at all.  That’s what not seeing a film for almost 30 years does to you.  I remembered so much of what else happens – the stupid plot, the awful villains – partially because of my comic (see below) and I the one thing that didn’t stick with me is now the thing that most infuriates me.

The first disaster in the film is in the key casting addition: Richard Pryor.  Apparently, at one point Pryor mentioned on a talk show that he was a big Superman fan and so the Salkinds decided to get him the cast due to his box office presence.  But while the first two Superman films had considerable humor to them (the second more so due to Lester taking over) they were far from comedies.  And Pryor doesn’t just become an addition to the cast – for large parts of the film he is the primary actor.  Suddenly, the stories from the first two about the incredible hero audiences had loved for over 40 years were taking a back seat to a stupid comedy story about a man who suddenly finds success with computers working for a boring industrial tycoon (somewhat derived from Lex Luthor, but there was no way that Gene Hackman was coming back for this film as he had refused to even shoot additional scenes for Lester in the second film, so they just created a generic rich villain, played, rather boringly, by Robert Vaughn).

When the film does actually deal with Superman it spends far too much time dealing with Clark Kent’s personal life (and not with Lois – she has a cameo at the start and he goes back to Smallville and falls for Lana Lang again; though she is played by the very good-looking Annette O’Toole, Lester isn’t able to get much out of her) and not enough allowing him to be Superman.  There is a good scene early on where Superman freezes a lake and then drops it on a fire to put it out and what should have been a very good scene when badly synthesized Kryptonite causes him to split into two personalities and Clark and Superman fight it out but it just isn’t handled very well.

At the end of the film, for the big scene, we get a villain nobody cares about (Vaughn’s sister, played very badly by Annie Ross) being taken over by the real villain (a powerful computer that goes sentient) but it is really Pryor who saves the day (pulling the plug on it, allowing Superman to get free of the Kryptonite it is creating – a badly recycled version of the rescue of Superman from Kryptonite in the first film but without the tender moment and the kiss and great line).  And then Superman stills need a bottle of super-acid (from early in the film) to really save the day.

I had a comic book adaptation of this film, I think before the film even came out, and the comic was better than the film, namely because there is no bad acting on the pages of a comic book and the camp didn’t feel as much like bad camp (certainly the horrendous opening scene seemed less staged and stupid and more just a bad accident where Superman has to save the day).  And the comic might help to explain a key question that might occur to people: since clearly this is a terrible film, why on earth did I watch this more than once?  Well, remember that this film came out in 1983.  We’re all spoiled today with a plethora of great (and not-so-great) comic book films.  Back then, we had the Christopher Reeve Superman films and that was just about it.  Yes, there was the Hulk and Spider-Man, both on television and reruns of the campy Adam West Batman.  But for cinematic comics, we had this series and nothing else.  And so, even though they had badly screwed this film up, there was nothing else around.  And it was before we had a VCR (that came in July of 1985) and so I couldn’t even re-watch the first two that had been so good.

In fact, this film is so bad that it colored my reaction to Superman IV.  Now, Superman IV is by no means a good film.  I never thought it was a good film.  But for a long time I didn’t think it was nearly as bad as so many others did.  It wasn’t because Superman IV was any good – it wasn’t.  But, I had hated Superman III so much that anything was going to be better, especially since they had at least gotten Gene Hackman to come back.  For the record, I’m not going to do Superman IV in this series because Christopher Reeve is gone now and he so earnestly believed in the concept behind that film (the elimination of nuclear weapons) and I don’t feel like trashing it.  But skip Superman III – I think it’s the worst of the bunch and its stupid plot and pathetic slapstick just cheapens Superman.

For the record, this is how I rank the films:

  1. Superman II  –  ***.5
  2. Superman: The Movie  –  ***.5
  3. Superman Returns  –  ***
  4. Man of Steel  –  ***
  5. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace  –  *.5
  6. Superman III  –  *